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Step into a Photo

By Susan Warsinger

Joseph Hilsenrath and Susan “Susi” Warsinger, née Hilsenrath. —Courtesy of Susan Warsinger

The smiling children sitting on the well-worn step are my brother Joe and me. We look happy because our mother is in the house about to have our baby brother. We know nothing about her not being able to go to the hospital because we are Jewish. The battered wooden door behind us is dense and solid, so we cannot hear any noises coming from the inside. When new, this door must have been especially elegant because of the intricate paneling that is embossed on its lower part. The photo was taken 84 years ago. 

The photo is in sepia and, therefore, it is difficult to describe colors. However, I do remember that my dress was a mellow pink. Since I am only eight years old, I am not sitting in a very lady-like position on the step. The dress is pulled up over my knees. The strings that hold the dress together at my neck are carelessly tied. I am wearing knee socks that are rolled up at the top because they must have been too long for me. My shoes look like they have been walked and played in with great pleasure. My brown hair is combed neatly and has highlights in it because the sun must have been shimmering on me. The hairstyle that I am wearing was very popular among young girls in Germany at the time. There are two hair parts on each side on top of my head. The hair in the middle of these parts is rolled lightly together and looks like one portly tube. It is called a tolle in German. The sides of my hair are not braided, but are tied together on each side loosely, like a spool, to make a soft frame about my face. I am looking straight into the camera, and I am smiling and my front teeth seem to say that I am very satisfied. My smile looks like it is coming from my heart. I have my arm around my brother and we are sitting close together.

My brother Joe, who is 14 months younger than I, shows his contentment from ear to ear. His eyes are lowered as if something very amusing is taking place on the sidewalk where our feet are resting. He is wearing suspenders that hold up his short pants and is also wearing knee-high socks like mine. However, these seem to fit him better than mine, probably because they are held up by a string and the tassels on the side. His ankle-high laced boots are dusty as though he has been trudging through some powdered white cement. His arms are folded crosswise above his knees. I am sure that I have forgiven him for shattering my porcelain doll when he took it for a ride on my mother’s dresser bench. In his enthusiasm to entertain this beautiful doll, she fell to the floor and her entire head broke into many pieces. On this day we have forgotten about this incident and it looks like we enjoy each other. I wish that I could remember the person who took the photo.

We are both waiting to be called back into our home. It is the home we had to rent after our father lost his linen store that was boycotted by the Germans. We did not care that our residence was somewhat shabby and threadbare. We were elated when we found out that we had a new baby brother called Ernest.

This photo has been reproduced in many forms and places. I use it in my talks to visitors at the Museum and now virtually on Zoom. My brother has it in his den in an apartment that overlooks both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. These were the sites that greeted us when we arrived in the United States to escape the Holocaust. I have it framed, on a table in my living room where my brother and I, from our step, survey pictures of my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, looking at a future that we cannot imagine.

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